Acting is no easy job. It requires a performer to experience emotions—or at least emotional reactions—that may be unfamiliar to them, or be a bad person, or even just put their vulnerability in the spotlight. Method acting can be even more daunting. Think of performances where actors have adopted radically different costumes, voices or behaviours that they are not used to—Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, Charlize Theron in Monster, or Daniel Day-Lewis in literally everything he’s done.
Even more interesting—and often more difficult—is a performance that calls for someone to act through heavy, body-altering makeup, sometimes pounds of it that can take hours to apply. The following actors have performed iconic roles while enduring such prosthetic additions, some of which make them look like entirely different people—or creatures.
7 Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, Ian McDiarmid
Introduced as the big bad in the final film of the original Star Wars trilogy, Emperor Palpatine stood—well, hunched, really—in stark contrast to Darth Vader. A cackling, verbose wretch of an old man, the Emperor was the mastermind behind the Empire’s machinations throughout the trilogy, including the construction of both Death Stars. In the prequel trilogy, it was revealed that even as a senator, and later Chancellor of the Galactic Republic, Palpatine had a hand in manipulating many of the events that would transpire over the course of the saga.
Palpatine’s extensive facial prosthetic helped turn 39-year-old McDiarmid into a wizened, arthritic old man. Years later, he would go through a similar makeup process to portray the Chancellor-turned-Emperor Palpatine in the final prequel, Revenge of the Sith, where the old man’s contorted visage was revealed to be scarring from his own Force lightning.
6 Hellboy, Ron Perlman
Ron Perlman (Pacific Rim, Drive) is no stranger to heavy makeup, having turned himself into a literal beast for all three seasons of CBS’ Beauty and the Beast. His transformative experience—not to mention his gravelly voice and wisecracking charm—made him an ideal candidate for the eponymous character of Hellboy when Guillermo del Toro adapted Mike Mignola’s comic in 2004. The required makeup included red skin, a pair of forehead-mounted horns (buzzed down to the stubs), a tail and an oversized right hand and forearm. Overall, Perlman had to go through a four-hour makeup process every shooting day.
On a heartwarming note, Perlman went through the laborious Hellboy makeup process once again, though not for a movie. In the summer of 2012, he partnered with the Make-A-Wish Foundation to give a six-year-old Hellboy fan a day with his favourite superhero. The young boy, named Zachary, was also given a similar makeup treatment of his own.
5 Sin City, Mickey Rourke
4 Platoon, Tom Berenger
3 RoboCop, Peter Weller
While the RoboCop of the recent remake was merely an injured man encased in a cyborg shell, the RoboCop of Paul Verhoeven’s original satirical film was in much worse shape. Effectively shredded by shotgun fire, police officer Alex Murphy unwillingly had most of his body replaced with robotic limbs and plating. Much of actor Peter Weller’s work throughout the film saw him maneuvering in his awkward costume, but in RoboCop’s final act the titular character removes his upper faceplate, revealing Alex Murphy’s last true human remnant: his face. Coupled with Weller’s deliberately stilted voice work, the prosthetics helped RoboCop seem less like a man in a costume and more like a genuinely advanced piece of technology. By comparison, the superficial “shell” utilized in the remake seems little more than a pretty costume.
2 The Elephant Man, John Hurt
A semi-biographical feature film by the king of the surreal, David Lynch, The Elephant Man is a black and white period piece that tells the story of Joseph Merrick (erroneously called “John” in the film), a man believed to have suffered from either Proteus syndrome, neurofibromatosis, or a combination of the two. As a result, Merrick had significant facial and bodily deformities, leading to a career as a “human curiosity” nicknamed “the Elephant Man.”
Lynch’s film, partly based on the book written by surgeon and Merrick’s friend, Sir Frederick Treves, cast John Hurt in the role of the titular character. IMDb claims that Hurt’s makeup took more than seven hours to apply each day, and that his applications were based directly on casts taken from the actual Merrick’s body. It also says that Hurt would smoke cigarettes with the makeup fully applied. The Elephant Man was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and likely would have won best makeup had the category existed in 1980 (it was introduced the following year, with An American Werewolf in London as its first recipient).
1 The Fly, Jeff Goldblum
Directed and co-written by Canadian horror filmmaker David Cronenberg, The Fly was a reimagining of the short story famously turned into a 1950s B-movie featuring Vincent Price. A less literal adaptation, Cronenberg’s film focused on Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), a socially awkward physicist who invents a teleportation device, in part to deal with his lifelong motion sickness. The telepod’s first human test run, with Brundle as its passenger, accidentally fuses the scientist with a stray housefly on a molecular level.
As weeks go by and Brundle’s cells naturally replace themselves, he begins to display both the physical and psychological traits of the fly. Though Brundle is initially only able to perform superhuman feats of strength, he soon sheds “non-vital” body parts, starts adhering to walls and ceilings, and develops an aggressive and possessive “insect” mentality, to the danger of everyone around him. By the climax, the inventor is completely unrecognizable as a human being. While Goldblum’s makeup-heavy performance was critically acclaimed, the actor was unfortunately not even nominated at the Oscars that year.